Mon, Nov 01, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Japan's troops to stay put despite killing of tourist

HOSTAGE TAKING Japan's leader said troops would remain in Iraq yesterday after learning that kidnappers had carried out a threat to behead a Japanese hostage

AFP , TOKYO

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi vowed yesterday that Japanese troops would continue their domestically unpopular mission in Iraq after Islamic militants demanding a pullout killed a 24-year-old Japanese tourist.

A head and a decapitated body with bound hands and feet were found wrapped in a US flag on Saturday behind a hospital on Baghdad's Haifa Street, a stronghold of Iraq's most wanted man Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi.

Fingerprint samples were sent to Tokyo and matched those of Shosei Koda, a naive traveller who took a public bus to Baghdad and was an easy target for kidnappers.

"It is our utmost regret that Mr. Shosei Koda fell victim to terrorism although the Japanese government made every possible effort to rescue the hostage," Koizumi said. "I offer my sincere condolences to his family."

Koda is the fifth Japanese to die in Iraq since the US-led war in the country, of which Koizumi was a vocal supporter. Two diplomats and two journalists were killed in gun attacks.

"Our country in cooperation with the international community will carry out humanitarian and rehabilitation assistance by the Self-Defense Forces for the sake of the people of Iraq and continue resolutely to fight against terrorism," Koizumi said.

The military, known as the Self-Defense Forces as Japan's Constitution rejects the use of force, is on its first deployment since World War II to an area of active fighting, although it is on a non-combat reconstruction mission.

An Asahi Shimbun poll, published a day before Koda's kidnapping was announced by an Islamist Web site, found that 63 percent of Japanese oppose keeping troops in Iraq after their mission expires on Dec. 14.

The opposition pledged after Koda's killing to fight against any extension of the mission.

"If the Self-Defense Forces had not been dispatched, this never would have happened," said main opposition leader Katsuya Okada of the Democratic Party of Japan. "I want to strongly request a withdrawal."

Mizuho Fukushima, leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party, criticized Koizumi for immediately rejecting the kidnappers' demands to withdraw troops, saying the prime minister "did not even allow for negotiations" on Koda's release.

After days of mediation in April Japan was able to secure the release of three Japanese aid workers and two journalists kidnapped in Iraq. The hostages, on returning to Japan, apologized for putting the nation on edge.

Similarly, the parents of Koda Sunday released a statement of apology "for causing anxiety to the many people who supported us."

"We pray for peace for the Iraqi people as soon as possible," the statement said.

Koda reportedly went to Baghdad out of curiosity and was refused entry at budget hotels that feared the security risks of a foreign guest.

Failing to get on a return bus to Jordan, he hopped into a waiting car offered by young men who spoke English.

The next time Koda was seen was at the feet of three armed, masked men under a banner of Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born militant who has pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden.

In a T-shirt and unkempt hair, Koda calmly told Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on a video Tuesday that if he did not withdraw Japan's troops within 48 hours "they will chop off my head."

Majid Hadi, a Baghdad police officer on the patrol that made the grisly discovery of Koda's remains, said the body was decapitated and also had two bullet wounds.

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